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Gustavo Dudamel: Live from Salzburg
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Concerto for piano, cello, violin and orchestra in C Major, Op. 56 (1804) [37:33]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel) (1874) [36:25]
Johann STRAUSS (1804-1849)
Radetzky March (1848) [5:27]
Alberto GINASTERA (1916-1983)
Danza final (from the ballet Estancia) (1941) [4:37]
Martha Argerich (piano); Renaud Capuçon (violin); Gautier Capuçon (cello)
Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel
Video directors: Agnes Méth (concert), Christian Kurt Weisz (documentary)
Bonus: ‘School of Learning’: Gustavo Dudamel and the SBYO in open rehearsal
Soundtrack: PCM Stereo, DTS 5.1 (concert), DTS 5.0 (documentary)
Picture: 16:9 (NTSC); Region: 0; Menu language: English
Subtitles (documentary): German, French, Spanish, Chinese
rec. Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, Austria 29 August 2008 (concert); Grosse Universitätsaula, Salzburg, 23 August 2008 (documentary)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 0734515 [131:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Not another outing for Mussorgsky’s pot-boiler, I hear you groan. Well yes, but this time it’s from the SBYO and their ever-youthful conductor, Gustavo ‘The Dude’ Dudamel. They put on a spectacular performance – both visually and musically – at the BBC Proms in 2007 and followed that with Fiesta, a disc of South American music (see review). Since then they’ve recorded the Mahler and Tchaikovsky Fifths, returning to London for a series of sell-out concerts in April.
 
I make no secret of my admiration for this young band, the product of Venezuela’s ‘Sistema’, which offers disadvantaged children an opportunity to become musicians and play in this orchestra. The success of the programme speaks for itself, yet many critics are bemused by – and some hostile towards – this charismatic partnership. It’s certainly a colourful one in a musical tradition that’s looking decidedly grey these days, both in terms of unadventurous repertoire and the increasing age of concertgoers. Recent reviews of the SBYO’s Tchaikovsky Fifth are a case in point; the recording was well received by some critics but roundly savaged by others.
 
I can’t comment on that disc but I have heard their Mahler 5, which was a major disappointment. It’s a daunting piece for even the most experienced orchestras, so there’s absolutely no shame in that. Their recent London gigs – Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Stravinsky’s Rite among them – were generally well received, though it’s hard to tell how much of that is due to the pop-star image of the SBYO. What is clear, though, is that given the right repertoire these players are capable of electrifying performances.
 
This live concert from Salzburg has potential, especially if one believes – as I do – that these youngsters really need an audience if they are to play at their best. Unfortunately Beethoven’s Triple Concerto is more about the soloists than the orchestra, Agnes Meth adding to the general air of claustrophobia with far too many close-ups. Also, Renaud and Gautier Capuçon give a rather narcissistic display that won’t please everyone. The venerable Argentine pianist Martha Argerich doesn’t play from memory, which is surprising, but at least she’s not such a distracting performer.
 
So, what about the performance? Big, bold and not very subtle is the short answer. The opening strings sound bloated, the piano much too prominent and somewhat muffled in the bass. As for the orchestra they are unsympathetically miked, which makes them sound coarse and unrefined. A pity, as DG is capable of a much better job than this. Despite some lovely moments, especially in the Largo, this remains a very ordinary, rather driven, reading of a great work. Not even the presence of big-name soloists can change that, although Argerich does get a foot-stomping reception from the audience afterwards.
 
I suspect most people will buy this DVD for Pictures at an Exhibition, the kind of showpiece that suits this band very well. Oddly the opening menu doesn’t allow viewers to go straight to the Mussorgsky, although there is always the skip button if you’re feeling impatient. There’s a palpable air of excitement at the start of the first ‘Promenade’, which opens with splendid playing from the SBYO’s principal trumpet. In fact the brass is generally very good, the trombone and horns making a strong first impression as well. Now this is more like it; even the camerawork is more expansive, with plenty of wide-angle shots of a well-lit stage.
 
Gnarly ‘Gnomus’ is well shaped, its more outlandish effects understated rather than overemphasised. It’s abundantly clear that the SBYO can and do play with subtlety and finesse, whatever their critics might say; indeed, Monsieur Ravel’s orchestration has seldom sounded so urbane, especially in the second ‘Promenade’ and the surge and eddy of  ‘The Old Castle’. In the latter the woodwind and strings may not be as weighty as we are used to, but then these Pictures have a subtle tint that is most appealing, especially in a work that’s as ubiquitous as this one. And just in case you’re wondering where Mussorgsky is in all this the vigorous third ‘Promenade’ comes as a trenchant follow-up to Ravel’s mistier misty meanderings.
 
The soundstage for this part of the concert is much more satisfying; it’s very natural and there’s plenty of detail as well. Picture quality – on both my PC and a 1080i upscaling DVD player – is pin sharp, as is the players’ articulation in ‘Tuileries’. And when it comes to sheer heft the swaying ox-cart in ‘Bydlo’ is pretty impressive, building up to a tautly controlled climax. Few performances of this movement are as inexorable as Lorin Maazel’s Cleveland account on Telarc 80042, surely one of the most spectacular performances of Pictures ever committed to disc. To his credit Dudamel eschews the widescreen, Technicolor approach in favour of something altogether more subtle; it must be tempting to do otherwise, though, especially when the SBYO just love to play loud.
 
The next ‘Promenade’ – marked Tranquillo – leads into the frisky ‘Ballad of the Unhatched Chicks’. Delectably pointed and rhythmically precise, this reading brings out minute colours and details so often obscured by broader brushes. Meanwhile, ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’ are well characterised, even if they don’t sound as sinister as they can do. ‘The Market at Limoges’ has all the clarity and rhythmic elan one could hope for, and one relishes anew the players’ obvious enjoyment at the music before them. How many times have we heard Pictures in the concert hall, the orchestras jaded by long hours and unfulfilling repertoire? Given these youngsters’ unfailing enthusiasm one can easily forgive them some ragged ensemble and the occasional – very occasional – thinness of tone.
 
Certainly the grim chords of ‘Catacombs’ could be a bit more imposing, the brass better blended, but the SBYO make amends with a dark, brooding performance of ‘Cum mortuis in lingua mortua’. Those gentle harp figures are beautifully caught by the engineers, although overall this isn’t one of DG’s best efforts. ‘Baba Yaga’ really allows the orchestra to crank up the volume, which they manage to do without sacrificing inner detail. Other performers – the Clevelanders especially – find a crushing weight to this music that eludes the SBYO, but even if they miss some of the opening pomp and splendour of ‘The Great Gate at Kiev’ they more than make up for it with a series of massive final perorations. The wild applause and whoops of delight that follow are well deserved, ‘The Dude’ and his players grinning from ear to ear.
 
But there’s always more, as Prommers and SBYO groupies have discovered. The first encore, Strauss’s Radetzky March, is played with an accent that’s more São Paulo than Salzburg but still the audience laps it up. Cue more rapturous applause, foot stomping and the Danza final from Ginastera’s ballet Estancia; this is the orchestra’s calling card and a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. The SBYO are on home turf and, what’s more, they can now play really LOUD. A little untidy, perhaps, but what a rousing send-off.
 
The bonus item is an open rehearsal of Mahler’s First Symphony – specifically the last two movements. The SBYO have already recorded this composer’s Fifth and they performed the ‘Resurrection’ in Lucerne last year. I’m not sure about the wisdom of this, given the instrumental and structural complexities of these symphonies. This is music of infinite variety and shading, not at all the bold primary colours that these players project so well. That said, I wouldn’t want to condemn them to a musical ghetto, so all credit to Dudamel for attempting to widen their repertoire. His goofy manner and endearing Speedy Gonzalez accent – the latter laid on a little thick, I thought –  play well with musicians and audience alike.
 
The symphony speaks with a Latin lilt as well, the conductor frequently comparing phrases and passages to sounds of the South American streets. Purists will probably blench at this but it’s a useful point of reference, and even if the results aren’t exactly idiomatic they sound fresh and spontaneous. I imagine younger audiences would respond well to that sea of smiling faces and ‘The Dude’s’ self-deprecatory style. In that sense these rehearsals are more about communicating the content of this music than honing it to concert standard. That said, the opening of the final movement has plenty of oomph, the honeyed string playing very affecting indeed. If anything there’s a little too much schmaltz and not enough schmerz, but it’s invigorating nonetheless.
 
So, despite a rather drab concerto there’s more than enough colour and flamboyance in Pictures to keep SBYO groupies happy. As for the sceptics I doubt there’s anything here that will change their minds. Which is a shame, because there’s so much to be grateful for, not least the light they bring to the dustier corners of our concert-going lives.
 
Shine on, I say, shine on.
 
Dan Morgan
 

 


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